Behavioural Problems in Children Aren’t Always Naughtiness
By Sonali Gupta
My work is often a reminder of how often we mistakenly attribute behavioural problems in children to their nature. He’s temperamental; she’s just naughty. Sometimes it’s true, but an oft-overlooked possibility is that the children are trying to figure out how to understand and express what they feel. But because they are kids, they haven’t learned how yet.
Too often we treat managing feelings as an innate talent that will blossom naturally with age or with many repetitions of “naughty” or “bad.” But emotional development in children is learned, and telling a child that hitting is bad does little to help; it does not teach him or her a way of expression that is healthy and good.
Not too long ago, I worked with a naughty 7-year-old, who was in therapy for his aggressive behaviour around his peers. He told me he felt guilty that his parents were in trouble because he was not as good as other children.
When I decided to share this with his parents, they were shocked. They said they had no clue their child could experience such deep feelings. This is a comment I hear very often as I work with families on bad behaviour in children, and it is revelatory – not just for the parents, but in the solving of the issue; not recognizing or trivializing kids’ emotions is often where the behavioural problems in children lie.
Research shows emotional development in children starts in infanthood; babies start experiencing emotions as early as 8 to 10 weeks old. Initially, they may express themselves in the form of a social smile, but — whether verbal or nonverbal — children share their emotions from a very young age. Early attachment, sibling rivalry, and separation anxiety are all expressions of their emotional states.
Parents can contribute to emotional development in children in two ways: first, by helping the child become aware of their own emotions, and second, by teaching him or her ways to regulate them. (This assumes parents have been able to form a healthy bond with their child and have created an environment where he or she feels safe and accepted. After all, don’t we all, as adults, also gauge a therapist or a friend before we share our emotions?)
This same boy with bad behaviour told me that when people get angry, they hit each other. When I asked him if there is anything else we can do to express anger, he grew troubled and teary and said he didn’t know. When I told him that when I get angry I manage not to hit people, he started smiling, and asked if I could teach him how. He was desperate to learn how to manage his emotions, but he didn’t know it.
As parents, it is on us to help our children learn to express emotion appropriately. Try adding these feelings activities for children into your daily life to prevent behavioural problems in children.
Teach emotional expression to prevent behavioural problems in children
Identify emotions by name.
When we use feeling words, either during pretend play or in our daily conversations with children, we build children’s vocabulary to speak about their own emotions and teach them it is acceptable to do so.
Comments like, “You look frustrated,” or “I am happy,” or “She is angry,” also help kids associate the behaviours they observe with how to express certain feelings. (Books can also help.)
Validate their feelings with yours.
Acknowledging your own feelings strengthens the bond with your child and becomes a form of role modelling for emotional development in children. As Dr Dan Siegel writes, “From early infancy, it appears that our ability to regulate emotional states depends upon the experience of feeling that a significant person in our life is simultaneously experiencing a similar state of mind.”
Children learn best by imitation, so, telling your little one, “I know you are feeling sad that Mama is leaving. So is Mama,” and giving her a hug, both validates your child’s feelings and demonstrates that sadness at saying good-bye is not an emotion expressed through tantrums or tears.
Draw their attention to the cause of their emotion.
Emotional development in children is as much about how to respond to a feeling as it is about identifying the cause. Help your child learn to make the connection between the prompt and their emotional response by pointing it out when you see it. Is your kid having the time of his life during a visit to the bakery? Point it out: “I can see how happy you are looking at so many different cakes.”
Create opportunities for children to express openly. When we allow children to express themselves or engage in unstructured play, arts and crafts, we get such insight into their psyche. One of my favourite feeling activities for children in therapy is to ask them to complete open-ended statements such as, “I don’t like when …” or “I was surprised when ….” You can try this at home.
Set boundaries and offer alternatives.
While it is fine for children to experience rage, excitement or hate, it is important to teach them some bad behaviour – such as hitting a parent, breaking objects or screaming – is not only inappropriate but also will not be tolerated.
However, punishments like time-out for behavioural problems in children won’t help them learn what is acceptable, only what isn’t. Instead, firmly say, “That’s not how we act when we’re angry,” and then teach them a better way of dealing with their emotions, such as breathing techniques or my favourite, the ‘Turtle Technique.’
Teach them problem solving skills and trust their abilities.
We can teach children to regulate their own emotions only if we believe in their abilities to do so. And so, we must help them develop those abilities by allowing them to deal with their own problems.
I remember watching a small child get pushed round by an older one at the playground. In the first instance, the smaller child ignored it; the second time, he moved away and informed his mother. This type of moment is an opportunity for a parent to empathize, praise the child for keeping calm, and encourage him to think of ways to solve the problem – then let him implement one.